Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Importance of good safety kayakers

I am not or dont pretend to be a great kayaker I have run my fair share of scary stuff over the years. I have also had my fair share of swims and confidence meltdowns. What I do take pride in is the fact I know I am a solid safety kayaker when working on commercial raft trips.

Good days & Bad days in Iceland

Lots of people make the common misconception that if you can kayak you are already a professional  safety kayaker. This may not  be the truth.

Many potential rafting customers are now approaching rafting companies and asking if safety kayakers are present on their commercial trips. The need and demand to have professional safety kayakers is raising all of the time. But what makes a professional commercial safety kayaker ?.
Nanu Gurung of Paddle Nepal 
As with most things in our industry it come down to the big 3

A solid background of professional training is going to go a long way.
Solid training will give a safety kayaker the tools and skills to be able to deal with any arising situation in a professional cool, calm & collective manner. This in turn will also increase the safety kayakers confidence on the water.

The International rafting federation safety craft workshop is the perfect place to gain such training. The workshop consists of the following training and assessment elements.

  • Personal kayak skills assessment on class 3 whitewater or class 4-5 whitewater
  • Commercial trip management from a safety kayak perspective including river running signals, communication & positioning 
  • Throwbag skills test 
  • Ropework  and mechanical advantage test
  • Safety kayak specific customer safety brief 
  • Personal swim test
  • Dealing  with unconscious casualties from the kayak
  • Exiting a Kayak in a rugged environment
  • Taking command of a raft from your kayak including vocal commands and pushing /towing a raft 
  •  Exiting your kayak entering a raft and taking command of the raft whilst in a rapid 
  • Dealing with multiple panicking swimmers Accessing an upturned raft from your kayak and re flipping the raft.
The whitewater rescue technician qualifications from rescue 3 international  will also equip Safety kayakers & raft guides with the relevant set of skills to be able to operate safe rescues in a whitewater environment in both during daylight & darkness.

The rescue 3 & IRF systems are both globally recognized awards so each guide or safety kayaker holding these awards should have an identical skill set.

A wilderness or advanced first aid certificate is an absolute must for any guide working in the outdoors with commercial paying customers.

As with anything in life. A task carried out by somebody with experience of the given task is going to complete the task much more easier.Compared with someone who has never carried out the given task.  So what experience does a safety kayker need in order to be a true professional?.

  • Personal kayaking experience and the ability to control your kayak in a variety of conditions & situations is a must. A Proficient safety kayaker should be confident running rapids whilst having 1 or maybe 2 swimmers holding onto his or hers kayak.
  • Operating river experience.  A sound knowledge of the river in all water conditions is also a must. A key skill of a professional safety kayaker is to identify potential hazards and flipping spots for the rafts and to be able to communicate them to the rafts in a clear way  . Knowing that on a certain level that feature x will be a nasty hole or a protruding rock with pin potential will allow the kayaker to pre position them self in a place where they can help the rafts in a quick manner should a problem occur. In my earlier days I was taught that a good safety kaykaer should know their river that well they should be able to run it backwards with their eyes closed alone . A bit far fetched but true in a way!

Binod Gurung of Wet n Wild explorations, lardo rapid Lower Indus India
  • Experience of working within a tight team of guides also plays a key part. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your fellow guides will make the life of a safety kayaker much more easy in the long run. Knowing that in high water guide x normally flips in a certain rapid will give you the time to be prepared for the possibility of a flip with swimmers as a result of this. knowing if a certain  guide sometimes struggles to climb back onto an upturned raft after a flip will help you to offer them assistance if they need it. The same applies vice versa the raft guides need to be confident that the safety kayaker is going to be able back them up and deal with swimmers or a flip should they occur or that the correct signals are given when running a river in higher than normal conditions.

Notice the safety kayaker on hand to assist with any help if needed. Kali Gandakhi river Nepal.

The age old saying "There is no substitute for experience" is age old for a reason !

Finally without experience or the correct training your judgment will be impaired. The ability to make snap judgement  decisions based on  training & experience is one of the main skills of a good safety kayaker. The ability to decide which customer to help first in a scenario with multiple swimmers could potentially prevent somebody from a nasty injury. The decision to give a signal to a raft to avoid a large pour over that could flip the raft is a key judgement decision. The decision keep a little distance from a panicking swimmer until they calm down a little before you commit yourself to assisting them with a tow from your kayak is always a key judgement decision.

This Triangle brings together the big 3. Solid training & experience combined will allow you to make better judgement calls.

Hopefully this has given you more of an insight into safety kayaking. see you on the river

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Kali Gandaki with Paddle Nepal

Travelling around the world with a raft guide has definitely taken me down a few rivers in Nepal, Iceland, Finland and New Zealand. Oh the carnage stories, don't we just love them. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy rafting but mainly because of the chilled atmosphere on the overnight trips, beautiful beaches and so on. If I happen to be in a funny state of mind and decide to go rafting, for me it definitely isn't about the big whitewater, continuous rapids and full-on action. (Mind you, I have done the epic Karnali river trip in the far western Nepal but I have never been so sick, nervous and excited at the same time!)

So it happened that some time ago I found myself by the put in of Kali Gandaki river. I finally joined a 3 day trip with Paddle Nepal. To be honest, I was supposed to go last year already but I chickened out. This year I definitely wanted to go, just for the great  experience (did I mention those beaches and camping?) and to see the boys working on the river. Never mind the rapids! How wrong was I..

Boys started to load the bus who knows at what time in the morning  and we took off around 7.30. We had a 3 hour drive ahead of us to the put in but with a tea stop on the way and a comfortable new bus it was no problem. 

We all tried to pitch in with packing, pumping and loading the rafts and preparing lunch. Boys put together awesome lunch by the riverside and we were either cooling off in the river or under the tarp. 

Finally it was time to get kitted off! How about that face..Yeah, doesn't look I am too convinced yet about the trip. 

Team GoPro! Some good footage they caught with their cameras. 

Here is Mark styling through his safety talk and demonstration.

I might be biased here but I do like his safety talks! At the end of everybody's got it I hope as actions speak louder than words. 

We obviously had safety kayakers with us even though most of us managed to stay inside the two rafts. Dinesh, Suk and Nanu took good care of us with Rajip and Mark guiding the rafts!  

On the first day we paddled for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Our trip was in early October and due to the late monsoon the water level was still quite high. You get almost straight into the action as the biggest commercially rafted rapid Little Brother is waiting for you after only about 15 mins. of paddling! There I was with no choice but to decide to go through with what I had started. We stopped to scout the rapid even though I didn't even want to have a look. Mark convinced me it was going to be fine and I trusted him. It might not look like that on the picture above! 

Believe it or not I was actually the first person to give an excited shout in the middle of the rapid because it was so much fun! The picture above proves it. 
After the Little Brother comes of course nasty looking Big Brother which we portaged around. It went relatively smooth as boys did a great team effort to move the raft across and over the rocks with our minimal help. 

Kali Gandaki, one of the holiest rivers in Nepal, begins its journey from the Tibetan border at the Nhubine Himal Glacier where it flows southwest through the Mustang region and then south cutting through one of the deepest gorges in the world between Dhaulagiri (8167 m) and Annapurna I (8091 m). It is one of the major rivers in Nepal and and a left bank tributary of the Ganges in India. 
The Kali Gandaki gorge is a part of very popular trekking route, Annapurna Circuit

The gorge and its deep walls are truly an amazing sight to admire from the raft. Looking at the bridge in the picture above even I definitely felt more comfortable in the raft than I would be on the bridge! 

We were off the river after 3 pm and this beautiful campsite was to be ours for the next night. You can see the bridge on the background of this photo still, we were told it would be an hours walk at least to reach it from the camp. Frisbee was played, tents and shelters were put up, kitchen was set up and in no time we had hot drinks and snacks waiting for us. 

Here are Dinesh and Suk preparing dinner like true river chefs. 

Simple candle bags illuminated our first nights camp to give a relaxing feeling after the first exciting day on the river. I slept soundly for 9 hours under the tarp listening to the river (the sound of the crickets was deafening at times though). The Good Morning rapid that can be seen on the picture was waiting for us the first thing in the next morning. 

This gray langur was the only one we spotted by the river this time but entire troops are commonly seen on the trips. 

Seems like this bunch was having good time and it was only the second morning. Anybody out there who used to watch TV series Lost? :)
No really, they were a great group of people to raft with for 3 days. 

Besides company safety kayakers we also had some experienced kayakers joining us from Scotland, Germany and Austria. 

Nanu, always smiling and alert should there be any swimmers. 

Like here..Anyone see the hand of God? 

No safety kayaker needed here though. The crew was on it straight away as he went for a swim in the middle of the rapid. Looks like Rajip is a little hesitant though..:)

Upon scouting this rapid we decided to run two lines as the main line had a high chance of some OBE - Outer Boat Experiences! Those of us who wanted to stay in the raft simply avoided the line and the adrenaline seekers went for it. 

This was all that us spectators got, no OBE, just some legs showing off. 

Here is Jange, the man behind the oars in the gear boat. He was making sure our food and other supplies got safely down the river. Mark said if I was to be too nervous during the trip I could jump on the gear boat with Jange but by the second day I had already forgotten this option as I was having too much on the paddle raft. 

Here is Rajip's team, screaming for fun or catching flies? 

After a full day of paddling and lunch between we finally arrived to second night's camp. The same procedures followed as the first evening and soon we were enjoying hot drinks with noodle soup this time.  

On the second camp Ghita, a lady from the local village, comes down to the beach to sell us thirsty rafters cold beers, rum and Coca Colas. She had some chocolate as well but the time I realized this it was already too late. Definitely felt like I would have deserved it. 

The second day we still had some tasty rapids to tackle before the flat section and the paddle out to the dam. By now I was excitedly looking forward to the rapids and was rather disappointed when they ended. 

In my opinion time went way too fast and it would have been fun stay longer even on the flat section of the river as we had lots of games and swimming going on. River still being at medium high level after the monsoon we were soon at the take out. 

Everybody had a chance to try kayaking also during the last hour. 

After couple of hours paddling in the morning and we were off the river carrying equipment to the bus, eating lunch and getting ready for one more adventure: the 5 hours class 5 bus drive back to Pokhara. Want to thank the Paddle Nepal and their team for making it possible for me to join this adventure! After the nervous start I can honestly say I enjoyed myself and would do it again. 

All photo credits belong to Tommy Giordano! 


Friday, 26 September 2014

Are you ready?

Many thanks to West Howland for the photo and my good friend Adam for the flyer and the logo! 
Check out Mango Tree Resort, not a bad place to relax during the evenings..Couldn't organize the course without the help of Paddle Nepal family! 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Swimming, flipping and guiding at altitude

I stepped off my Jetconnect flight at Leh airport and made my way onto the shuttle bus. I noticed a slight shortage of breath which was expected as I was an elevation of around 3500m. A quick thought popped into my head " If I am short of breath now whats it going to feel like when we run flip drills & swimming sessions".

The Zanskar & Indus rivers were to be my home for the next two weeks. During this time I was to run a 6 day International Rafting Federation safety craft, guide & trip leader workshop. Hosted by Tsering Chotak of Wet N Wild Explorations in Leh. After a day of acclimatization in Leh I packed my bags and headed to the Wet N Wild base camp. My first mission was to kayak the commercial one day rafting section of the Zanskar river. During this run I needed to take a close up look at the river in order to plan the course in more detail. 

The Zanskar river is a typical glacial canyon river with big volume rapids and funky eddy lines. The Zanskar was going to provide us with plenty of entertainment during the course.  

Day one kicked off with a typical meet & greet session. The workshop had 9 attendees from India,Nepal & UK. We had a mix of first & second season guides right the way through to seasoned Himalayan guides with a wealth of experience. I did notice an air of nervousness among the team as many of them had never attended any type of formal training course before. To ease the nervousness I wanted to get the team onto the water as soon as possible. As expected the technical rafting ability of the group was perfect as the team could put a boat anywhere I asked. Having run a few courses on big volume rivers before I knew this would be the case. I also knew that safety talks & the technical stuff was where I would need to focus my attention. The end of the day also was the start of 3 days non stop rain. 

The road the Zanskar was closed due to a landslide so opted to spend day 2 on the lower Indus river to allow the guides to strut their stuff on some class 4+. The less rafted lower Indus took the team out of their comfort zone of the Zanskar river and gave them something new to look at. The lower Indus provided us with some long continuous large volume rapids. We paddled 40km with some tedious flat sections, by the time we reached the takeout the team thought we were finished for the day! I then decided to finish the day with flip drills. For those who don't know the standard IRF flip drill it includes a swim to the raft where you must climb in and flip the raft. You must then climb back onto the flipped raft, count your crew, re flip the raft and climb back in. For most fit class 4-5 guides this should not take long. I decided to lead by example and give a demonstration. It wasn't until afterwards I noticed how tiring a flip drill at that altitude was. The rest of the team agreed with me. 

Day 3 was spent at the Nimu rapid based next to the Wet N Wild base camp. During our dry land morning session we took a look into setting up various rope systems and rope work. The outcome of this session was quite simple: all of the guides needed to be confidently able to rig a basic mechanical advantage system in order to tension a rope or to move a heavy load. After lunch we took to the water to cover whitewater swimming and throw bag exercises. Towards the end of the day we spent sometime exploring foot entrapment skills. The team came away from the session with a clearer understanding that not all rescues need to be over complex, a simple approach is often safer and quicker. 

Day 4 started with a few tired looking faces but at least the sun was back out. Today we moved onto the class 3 lower volume section of the middle Indus river. We got to utilize the safety kayakers more. The group got to try various methods of getting a line across the river. We also set up tensioned diagonals & some mechanical advantage systems. The guides were starting to gel as a team and were starting to operate really well.

Day 5 
The sun was out, the road was open so we were back on the Zanskar river. Today was the scenario day. The safety kayakers were given opportunities to rescue multiple panicking swimmers. We also looked at dealing with unconscious swimmers from a kayak. The trip leader candidates were given 1 hour to solve a scenario including multiple swimmers, flipped rafts and all types of carnage including the decision to evacuate or not. The day was completed with a group evacuation exercise. The loose scree and relentless midday sun of the Zanskar tested the patience off all involved.

Day 6  
This gave us the opportunity to re visit any areas that the team wanted to look at. We tackled the IRF written paper and got stuck into the debriefs. All of my debriefs had the same theme, keep up the good work, carry the correct equipment & practice, practice, practice!

By the end of the week the group were tired (so was I) but the team achieved the following and all walked away with  
  • 2 class 4-5 trip leaders 
  • 5 class 4-5 guides 
  • 1 class 3 guide 
  • 1 trainee guide 

All of the candidates also gained an IRF safety craft award. 

My next courses will run on 1-5th December on the Marsyangdi river in Nepal. If last years course will be anything to go by it's going to be a blast.

Happy paddling,